Symposium Introduction

Black Queer Ethics, Family, and Philosophical Imagination textually embodies a space where readers can engage relationships that “reflect the human capacity to participate in divine creativity” (186). Thelathia Nikki Young invites us into this location using an ethnographic method that is simultaneously research process and ethical commitment. Thus, the narrative becomes a tool for moral reflection and for agency—the author’s, her co-participants’, and then the reader’s.

Young begins her project on family by debunking the historical myth of an American family (white, hetero, two kids, a dog). She argues from the first pages of the book that, “The American family is a queer family” (5). The human relationships centered in the text are those of black queer family. Young highlights three core claims that arise in the midst of this ethical locatedness. First, family is both a microcosm of larger social, political, economic, and religious patterns and the pedagogical foundation for them. Normalizing and disciplining forms of family need to be disrupted if justice-love is to be possible. Second, black queer people are moral subjects regardless of the religio-political whitecisheteropatriarchal norm that governs U.S. life. Third, critically engaging marginalized subjectivities is not a particularist or isolationist approach. Rather, these subjectivities bear witness to moral potential in all of us (185).

As Young accompanies her co-participants and the reader through her text, what black queer family is and can be unfolds. Young’s ethical claims—about family and black queer family specifically—do not reinscribe tidy, fixed categories of how to “do and be family” for once and for all. She avoids setting formulae for given versus chosen family. Alongside Young’s method, the relational and contextual experiences shared by interviewees subvert the dominant form of family ethics by destabilizing its “normalizing” function—that is, its tendency to classify and evaluate moral capacities as either “in” or “out.” Instead, family as creative (moral) act includes continuities and discontinuities that Young describes as disruption-irruption, creative resistance, and subversive-generative imagination.

What can we make of this as a work of Christian ethics? For some of Young’s co-participants, Christianity is not a salient meaning-maker in their lives, and it has often been harmful. Young does not turn to a saccharine substitute of Christian kinship or abstract neighbor love to package a palatable black queer family ethic. She calls the reader first to remember a particular Christian moral imperative that is, for her, Christologically focused. She writes, “In my interpretation of Christianity’s sacred text, Jesus was a radical and revolutionary dismantler of oppressive forces who used various means of reorientation, disambiguation, and institutional subversion to reimagine a ‘family’ through iteration and action” (9). Young’s distinctly social ethics approach is located not in a theological novelty, but in a lived historical concreteness of which Christians are called to be a part.

Today, as in centuries past, social locatedness matters even (or perhaps more so) when it is constructed by empire and religion, gendered and racialized, confined by a productive and reproductive telos (13). I live in the debunked American family—white, Christian, cisheterosexual, two kids (a girl and a boy), dogs (we have two, so that disrupts things a bit). Many white, Christian, heterosexual theologians and ethicists may not read Young’s text, reasoning that, as “we” are not present in it, it is not about us. What does a black queer family ethics and philosophical imagination have to say in response? First, as I have already noted, the purpose of the text is not to answer a question (much less one that centers whiteness or cisheterosexuality), but to invite readers into a space of moral reflection and imagination. Second, the text is in fact all about the moral failings and possibilities of family as creative act, which can only be morally prosperous if it aims at anti-racism, gender and sexual inclusion, and economic thriving. How else would we all be able to be fully free selves “able to love and love justly” (181)? In the everydayness of being family, it is easy to lose sight of its moral import. We would all do well to begin and end each day asking together if we did the work of liberation—imagining that the current circumstances that define our lives need not be. As Young writes, justice-love “means that our liberty necessitates our accountability and becoming free together means being family” (181). In the space created by this black queer family ethics, I can morally reflect on how freedom is differently, yet distinctly, deformed for white, heterosexual, Christians like myself. I can also imagine how (and act so) it need not be.

By this same invitation, our contributors have also been compelled by Young, her text, and her co-participants to question the definition of family, consider other social, political, and cultural forces similar to family, and highlight the methodological import of Black Queer Ethics, Family, and Philosophical Imagination.

In her essay, Monique Moultrie begins with creativity generated by song. She calls forth the continuities of Young’s text with Sister Sledge’s song “We are Family” in which family values, virtues, and norms are troubled. Moultrie highlights the ways Young’s text resists “normalizing or essentializing” black queer experiences of family. Moultrie also names the desire for a reconstructed ethic of family relationship, though one that in “pursuing and creating the good life” is about the processes of “accountability and responsibility” not preconceived pathways.

Rebecca Alpert also finds generativity in Young’s redefinition of family through queer kinship, not biology or economics. In this way, both the co-participants and Young trouble reproduction and production as ties that bind, or should bind, family. In pushing the binary of bio-legal versus chosen family, Alpert asks, “What of friendship?” Engaging the reflections of one co-participant, Sage, Alpert wonders if using terms like circles of intimacy or families or stay downers is preferable to co-opting and redefining the term family itself.

In her response, Marcia Riggs acknowledges the family as a social, political and cultural force. She applauds Young’s process of examination that begins not with public policy debates where others have set the terms, but at “the site of oppression and source of creative resistance.” Riggs asks Young and our readers to expand the social institutions that require black queer ethical examination. Riggs names two other social institutions: education and religion/church. Within her response, she raises for consideration protest as form of disruption and the need to resist the disciplining effects of the binaries of orthodoxy.

Resonating with the methodological import of Young’s work, Josef Sorett notes that Young not only makes claims about moral subjectivity, but enacts a new method that embodies the same subjectivity. His essay details how Young’s methodology of praxis is transgressive against the very disciplines it brings together. With regard to Christian ethics, Young’s work is “Not an act of apologetics.” It is a re-centering and “holding the discipline accountable” to doing what its name describes—Christian ethics. Sorett also suggests, Young pushes on the disciplinary boundaries of Black queer studies with attention to Christianity. In rounding out his analysis of her praxis mode, he connects Young’s ethnographic engagement with the #BlackLivesMatter movement’s locatedness of “Black Villages.”

Benae Baemon further identifies the space and locatedness that Young creates with her co-participants and with her readers. Beamon describes the creation of this space as a jazz mode of creativity that does not predetermine or over determine. Engaging the concept of liminality, as articulated by Victor Turner, she details the ways in which liminality is present for her and for the co-participants in Young’s text, creating an is and not-yet. Where white, western academic ethics often disciplines its writers to seek normativity, Beamon notes in her own ethical practice, Young offers the reader a “beautiful and complex mess that is a non-normative life lived in resistance: the anti-structure.” Baemon calls this a distinctly black queer Afrofuturity.

Black Queer Ethics, Family, and Philosophical Imagination is a text that liberates the contours of disciplinary fields, methodological approaches, and as Young herself hopes, all, but especially black queer, families and relationships.

Marcia Riggs

Response

Marcia Riggs on Black Queer Ethics

The sociopolitical, socioeconomic, and sociocultural climate in the United States today is marked by a narrowed scope of justice and partisan polarization. Public policy debates and executive orders are driven by assumptions that describe certain social groups (domestic and international) as pathological, deviant and/or even terroristic. By labeling some groups in such terms, the members of these groups are rendered expendable to social, political, and economic life as well as moral community, thus they are left outside the scope of justice.

In Black Queer Ethics, Thelathia Nikki Young re-centers eloquently one such group, black queer people, among debates about family values, gay marriage and most recently the accommodations for transgendered persons. Most importantly, though, Young does not let any of these public policy debates drive her argument. Instead, her argument compels us to think deeply about family as both a site of oppression and source of creative resistance for the sake of our collective moral flourishing. Young’s explication of family as understood and practiced by black queer people offers a vision of moral flourishing that can sustain all of us. Indeed, Young does not retrieve ethical insights about family from her interviews with black queer people and romanticize them. Any queer utopic moral vision is grounded in an imperative to create micro-communities. Accordingly, my comments in this response to her book inquire about two other social institutions that are implicated in her argument about family.

Some might say that there is a trinity of interdependent social institutions—family, education, religion/church—of norm formation and stabilization. Schools, like families, are sites where identities and systems intersect with profound effect on individuals, social groups, and society overall. The race, ethnicity, gender, class, physical and mental ability, English language facility, and immigration status of individual students effect how and what they are taught, as well as influence public education policy. The Secretary of Education Betty DeVos speaks about reframing the public education paradigm to emphasize parental choice, the needs of the individual child, and greater local rather than federal control of schools and state education policy.1 There is an undercurrent of de facto privatization of public education at the heart of this paradigm shift. As Donald Cohen, analyst of current trends in public education, reminds us: “People tend to think privatization is about giving it to the private sector, or a private corporation…. But privatizing is more than that. It’s when there is less public control, fewer regulations, and more governance by market forces.”2

Let’s imagine public schools can become micro-communities “in which people exist in fully intentional relationality and where human potentiality is not based on individualism, but rather on relationships with one another” (161). A few questions: What kind of curriculum will be taught? How will micro-communities differ in practice from unjust segregated institutions? How shall we truly disrupt the separate but equal binary that continues to plague public education driven equally by current race-ethnicity, economic, and political dynamics?

I think that Young’s argument sets us on a quest for ways and means to destabilize and counter-normalize systems and policies. Accordingly, “subversive-generative moral imagination” amid current heightened partisan polarization is critical. This imagination raises important questions about the limits of current political protest as well as possibilities for such. The limits of current protest from this perspective have to do with the degree to which it disrupts fully even progressive norms. Too often we are prepared to disrupt conservative norms but fail to acknowledge the equally problematic stabilizing functions of progressive norms. When progressives fail to acknowledge the stabilizing function of all norms, they inhibit the full potential of protest. Surely protest is precisely a form of “disruption [that] makes room for the irruption of new counter-normalizing norms that are themselves examples of new possibilities” (103). Moreover, public policy is about the distribution of social, political and economic resources of society; thus, protest as disruption-irruption deriving is critical for an ever-expanding scope of justice that is crucial to how we live as moral community. In fact, Pew Research indicates that partisan polarization is more acrimonious than it has been in nearly a quarter century, aimed at members of the opposing parties’ policies and personal lives.3 Perhaps, the civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties and the current fusion coalitions or Black Lives Matter movement are examples of disruption-irruption protest. Still, on issues such as gay marriage, accommodations for transgendered persons, abortion, gun violence, and health care, as a country we remain embroiled in partisan polarization not only on the lines of public protest but also in the legislative sphere of policy-making. There seems to be an overriding us vs. them binary yet to be truly disrupted.

Queer relationality is the creative-generative norm for moral agency that is policy-oriented and engenders moral community. Young proposes the following ethical frameworks for queer relationality: mutuality and justice-love. The earmarks of these ethical frameworks are right relations of embodied vulnerability and relationships of accountability. Her explication of these frameworks leads us to the third social institution implicated in her discussion of family—religion/church. Young notes that these ethical frameworks displace a traditional Christian ethical emphasis on self-sacrifice and replace it with an emphasis on liberative right relatedness. Who is my neighbor? Who is family? The answer to these two questions from the perspective of queer relationality reveals the subversive power of justice-love: “It makes us recognize that being fully free selves means that we are able to love and love justly. It means that our liberty necessitates our accountability and becoming free together means being family” (181).

When we think about religion/church from the perspective of black queer morality and family, it seems that most mainstream/mainline white Christian churches have not embraced fully the subversive power of justice-love. Many denominational churches continue to debate and threaten schism regarding the ordination and election of gay persons to the clergy and episcopacy. Likewise, most historic denominational black churches fail to acknowledge the stories of black queer people and to embrace the morality that emerges from those stories. Young’s closing lines incriminate these black churches: “Doing the ethical work of excavating stories and privileging diverse subjectivities demonstrates, once and for all, that black lives matter” (198). A final question: Can the binaries of orthodoxy be disrupted?


  1. Betsy DeVos, “U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ Prepared Remarks to the Brookings Institution,” March 29, 2017, https://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/us-secretary-education-betsy-devos-prepared-remarks-brookings-institution.

  2. Rachel M. Cohen, “When Public Schools Go Private,” American Prospect, September 28, 2016, http://prospect.org/article/when-public-schools-go-private.

  3. Carroll Doherty and Jocelyn Kiley, “Key Facts about Partisanship and Political Animosity in America,” Factank: News in the Numbers, Pew Research Center, June 22, 2016, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/06/22/key-facts-partisanship/.

  • Nikki Young

    Nikki Young

    Reply

    Response to Marcia Riggs

    I write about the family because I believe it is a site of moral formation; it is a space in which people and relations become real while reflecting desires, environs, institutions, and possibilities. As Riggs aptly notes, the family is intricately connected with a variety of institutions that shape, police, and discipline individual and communal lives, so I am thankful for her call to turn to other sites of formation to examine the implications of Black Queer Ethics. The interdependent trinity of which she speaks—family, education, and church—have been quite adept in their multipronged efforts to discipline individuals and communities into hierarchical positions that relate to a white cisheteropatriarchal norm. The question for any of us concerned with such disciplining must be about the technologies of normalization that propel these efforts and legitimize them in the public sphere.

    Riggs uses the examples of SoE DeVos and Donald Cohen to show a current sociopolitical trend: the privatization of education. What does it mean for schools to shift from being tools that contribute to civic norms—ones that represent sociopolitical interests—to instruments of the market structure? More importantly, what would it mean for us all to openly witness and acknowledge this move, rather than pretend it is not happening? To be honest, I am not surprised by this trend. In fact, I tried to argue in Black Queer Ethics that the family has always been a part of the market system and that some of the creative resistance efforts displayed by my research participants are about moving beyond the suffocating structure of capitalist forces. The technologies of capitalism foster moral systems that constrict livability, especially in relation to black queers’ lives. And, inasmuch as budgets are moral documents, we must recognize pubic school funding as an assertion that our political and educational structure values conformation over creation, #alternativefacts over history, and normalization over innovation.

    It is important, then, that Riggs asks what a counter-norming micro education community might look like. How could it subversively generate new possibilities for individuals and communities? I imagine that such a context would require a curriculum that aims to liberate rather than police. We would have to admit that the public schools that currently operate in many of our communities focus on students’ abilities to be successful within a capitalist white cisheteropatriarchy. They teach people to “know their place” and to “act right.” To teach students liberation would mean generating a curriculum that is based on critiquing the social and political environment for the express purpose of altering that environment and/or changing our relationship to it. For me, this is the work of counter-normalizing norm creation. It is about establishing an ethos that is founded on a real investment in social transformation and human flourishing—for all people. I have witnessed and tried to document the ways that black queers do this resistant work.

    We can see some of this resistance in political protests, as Riggs mentions. People push back against policies, structures, and social mores that limit livability and even sanction corrective violence. Many current political protests illustrate a growing discomfort with norms, especially as those norms begin to more noticeably infringe upon the rights and privileges that some people have enjoyed their whole lives. I find this element of public protest maddening, as it colludes with and contributes to hierarchical categorization by simply trying to get more people access to rights and privileges instead of dismantling and interrogating the structure in the first place. For this reason, I deeply appreciate the work that many of my research participants do on a daily basis. The social and political protests that they instigate begin on the level of their relational choices, which in turn, stimulate other transformations. The creativity embedded in such resistance means that the protests are more than productive reactions to circumstances; rather, they are creative actions that move black queers toward lives that have meaning beyond the sociopolitical circumstances that surround us.

    Often, this kind of meaning germinates in spiritual and/or religious contexts. Thus, Riggs’s final question about whether or not the “binaries of orthodoxy” can be disrupted is one that we should not ignore. What does it mean for us to think of church and other religious spaces as contexts from which we demand liberatory ethics? Can the church be a micro-community that values the people over (and maybe even against) the institution? As a Christian ethicist, I remain curious (and hopeful) about this possibility. While black people and black queer folks have been able to generate spirituality and practices that enhance our lives and relations—despite messaging that such lives and relations are reprobate—the context of the religious institutions in which many of us were raised are obstacles to overcome rather than boards from which we can spring higher or dive deeper into our own self- and collective understanding. To love one another in a way that presumes our liberation within the context of spiritual institutions means holding those institutions accountable to the moral standards that foster our flourishing.

    The churches give us an opportunity, I think, to really examine right relatedness; they create space to evaluate what, in fact, just love actually looks like. So, what do we do when the church is itself an institution that sanctions and even promotes gender inequality, uneven sexual expectations (including the discipline and punishments that accompany them), and acceptance of socioeconomic norms that are based on the values embedded within a capitalist structure? We call it to task. We require it to evaluate its teachings, doctrines, and unspoken beliefs about moral systems. We challenge the model of self-sacrifice that severely impacts us all in a racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, capitalist society. And when it refuses to listen, we “shake the dust off our feet” as we make our way to liberation.

    • Marcia Riggs

      Marcia Riggs

      Reply

      To Shake the Dust off Our Feet

      I begin my response where Young ends hers. I agree that the church and other religious institutions should be the places to “really examine right relatedness.” However, it is precisely the captivity of such institutions to the values embedded within a capitalist white cisheteropatriarchy that keeps their practices and the people they serve complicit with those values. Many, if not most, churches (to focus on the group with which I am most familiar) tend to let survival of their institutions rather than liberation of people and society rise to the top of their “moral” agendas. Well, as some remind me, that’s the reality of being an institution, the focus is on stability and enduring over time, or in perpetuity. Likewise, members of these churches tend to be protective of them, defensive about them, and complicit with the survival agenda rather than call them to task. There does not seem to be a readiness to shake the dust off our feet, leave the institutions behind, and answer a call to liberation.

      As I teach religious leaders for this 21st century context of hate-mongering and violence, I keep thinking that it will get easier to get them to at least question the survivalist agenda in favor of an agenda for churches/religious institutions that has activism or in more theological terms—prophetic witness—at the forefront. For Christian religious leaders, I often remind them that the biblical narrative of Jesus calling disciples is one of being on the move; Jesus did not call the disciples to a place but to places where people needed to be healed and fed and freed.

      Finally, I must confess that I am more hopeful about transforming the other two institutions that I discussed in my initial response to the book—family and education. Young’s black queer ethics provides us clear guidance and moral vision for transforming family. People are creating alternative educational contexts by means of technology that allow knowledge to be shared and constructed by greater numbers of people and in more places globally than ever before; this has already disrupted education as usual. But, unfortunately, to paraphrase Ella Baker, religious leaders too often have feet of clay; consequently, they and the religious institutions they lead tend to be reactionary rather than revolutionary.

Rebecca Alpert

Response

Rebecca Alpert on Black Queer Ethics

Thelathia Nikki Young provides us with a roadmap to a new black and queer ethics that opens different ways of looking at relationships. I was particularly moved by how her conversations with black queer people in Atlanta shaped the narrative; it’s in these stories and dialogues she (and we) find real insights about shaping a future that looks very different from the past.

Moved as I was by all these stories, I got stopped in my tracks by her interaction with Sage, who explained how she saw the difference between family and friends. For Sage, family is where she gives more, goes “to the limit” or even beyond it. Friends, on the other hand, she sets boundaries with. Sage goes on to explain that society uses capitalism and biology to define what family is, and she’d like to get beyond that definition, to expand with whom she, as L. Alice terms it, “stays down.” Young uses these stories and perspectives to broaden the criteria for people to count as family. Family, then, consists of those people with whom one stays down. Family values are how we manifest this staying down: through loyalty, interdependence, unconditional commitment, and a shared history. We queer kinship, she suggests, by redefining family through values rather than economics and biology. Kinship is thus based on choice and family is something entirely other than what it has been.

For blacks and queers, this is most liberating. As the heteropatriarchal white family (extended and nuclear) has been privileged by law and custom throughout American history, demanding to have our different family configurations recognized and valued has been a significant part of black and queer efforts for self-validation and respect over the last half century. We question the sacredness of families built on biology and defined through economic measures like marriage and inheritance, and mock the valorization of the man-wife-boy-girl-dog nuclear family. When we seek to validate families we choose rather than those we are given (or, in the case of the enslaved, not even permitted to have) we defy efforts to deny our humanity. We celebrate the validity of our various nontraditional family formations. We redefine “family values.” And we should. But is that enough? Maybe we need to get beyond “family” if we want to rethink how we value these intimate connections.

Here I return to Sage who draws family on one side of a boundary and leaves friends on the other. While her new understanding of family might also incorporate some of her friends, this redefinition of family (and the insistence on taking back the term), while important, still affirms that distinction. It’s one that troubles me. In taking back family, we are leaving other relationships outside the charmed circle, and leaving this relationship hierarchy in place limits new ways of thinking about how we might (and do) organize our lives queerly.

So, then, a series of questions:

How do we (and why should we) privilege family over friends? Doesn’t friendship have the potential to satisfy Young’s family values criteria of loyalty, interdependence, unconditional commitment, and a shared history? What makes someone decide when a friend is actually family? Why should they have to? Why can’t friendships be recognized for what they are and what they bring to our lives? Why ask the question “how do you distinguish between family and friend” at all? In my life, some of my best friends are people in my “family”—my wife (oh I do hate that term, but it’s a great way of coming out, and not using it in the era of gay marriage only serves to obfuscate one’s sexual identity), my son and daughter, my ex-husband’s first cousin: these are my friends, and I value their friendship above all.

And as to my “non-familial” friends: there’s still some notion in the lesbian world that my friend who is my ex-lover is more “family” than my very close friends with whom I never shared a sexual relationship. That feels quite arbitrary to me, since some of my ex-lovers are hardly family any more at all. (And maybe they never were.) And many of my friends have stayed down with me in the thickest of ways.

That leads me ask how sex (and reproductivity for that matter) matter in the way we define others as family. Young tells us that marriage should not be the basis for defining family, but can we say the bonds made by sex (and reproduction) don’t define family? If we use the term family to measure who’s in our intimate networks, how do our bio-legal relatives fit? I have little contact with my family of origin. My parents have both been dead for about thirty years, as have their siblings. I do stay in touch with a few bio-cousins, but count my ex-husband’s and current wife’s bio-legal relatives as my real family, which technically by American standards they are. I don’t like all of them, but I do like that they are in my life. Whether or not they are the ones who stay down with me however is a matter of life’s vagaries (some do; it’s often surprising which ones), but I want them all to count whether I like them or not. So I’m not ready to give up on legal/biological connections just yet.

So then, beyond friends and family, what about all those others who form circles of intimacy? Shouldn’t my coworkers, with whom I spend a good deal of my time and who often have my back count too? (This would also be true for those people who are for whatever reason institutionalized.) And my friends who love their animal companions will want to remind me that those relationships should not be trivialized as they are when we mock the nuclear family’s dog; for many they may be the most intimate and closest relationships of all. And while I don’t do social networks, I would also suggest that many people rely on their Facebook friends for more than just amusement; they are often a lifeline and one other way to configure who matters, who cares for them, and whom they care for.

Circles of intimacy (or maybe families in the plural, or even stay downers) make more sense to me as possible ways to reconfigure the limited bio/legal/economic notion of family than to try to co-opt the term itself. I’m most grateful to Young for creating the opportunity to think about why that’s a boundary I want to push.

  • Nikki Young

    Nikki Young

    Reply

    Free-Writing to Rebecca Alpert

    The very definition of family is at stake in Black Queer Ethics, and Rebecca Alpert knows it. Her engagement with my text begins with the way that I want to trouble the framework and investigate the actual connections that have defined and will continue to define the term. Drawing on Sage’s distinction between family and friends, Alpert notes how, in the book, family is defined by the values that create it. Family does not represent a set of predetermined social and biological scripts; instead, it is co-determined by those willing to participate in connections and relational practices that are life-giving for those who are involved. When Sage suggests that she is willing to make room for family members to become, to make mistakes, and to incarnate their best and highest dreams, she is releasing a desire to stifle their individual and collective becoming. For her—and I agree—this is a generous and vulnerable gift, considering that it requires openness to new relational expectations, practices, and desires. But friends do not automatically get this gift. Friends get generosity and kindness, mutual support and love, but they also get boundaries in ways that family does not. Like Alpert, I am intrigued by Sage’s willingness to draw a line between those for whom no line exists. And, admittedly, I am intrigued because I imagine that such a line is hard to recognize in the midst of creating familial relationships.

    Thankfully, Sage does not speak of this distinction for the purpose of social, political, or biological recognition. Instead, as Alpert rightly notes, Sage employs the distinction in order to locate the crux of relational liberation. Seeing and appreciating the values that bespeak family is a way of disentangling the term and concept from the manacles of white-cisheteropatriarchy. It is a way of reclaiming the innovative, poetic, and morally excellent way that black people have honored our kin. Moving beyond limited and limiting relational structures to which we had access—especially during enslavement—black queers have crafted and nurtured family values, systems, practices, and rituals that recognize and eschew those limitations that shackle the very people and institutions that endeavor to police us. For me, Alpert’s illumination of this point is significant, as it reminds me of why values propel the central theme of the book: they ultimately point to liberated ways of thinking about and being accountable to ourselves and one another.

    Yet, Sage’s ruminations leave us with a kind of hierarchy of relationships, according to Alpert. If Sage is right in drawing the line between those who are family and those who are friends, marking the difference between whether or not and when to draw specific boundaries, what ought we make of the distinction in the first place? That is, what is the qualitative difference between family relationships and those good friendships that are also based on shared values, loyalty, shared history, and staying down? I am not exactly sure, but I think it might at least have to do with a willingness to co-create with some and simply be with others. Perhaps Sage feels like there is a specific investment in generating life that she has with family members, while friends are people with whom she simply shares that life. And, for me, the simplicity there is not diminutive; there is something quite beautiful and peaceful about sharing space and togetherness—fellowship—with loved ones. The work of creating new possibilities, though, requires intentional movement beyond shared experience. It requires persistence, imagination, and ongoing negotiation.

    Still, I appreciate Alpert’s inquiries. Why, indeed, must we work to distinguish one kind of loving relationship from the next? What value is there in parsing out “kinds” when such parsing has been the tool of political, economic, social, and religious oppression visited upon black people for such a long time? I suppose part of the value is in the moral agency that constitutes the decision in the first place. Inasmuch as we allow ourselves to appreciate what different kinds of relationships require, produce, and call forth from us individually and collectively, we engage in processes of transforming all kinds of relationships. In short, we get to break the silence that speaks so loudly in shaping how we relate to one another and really decide what we want and how we wish to behave with one another. Such a process, I believe, illustrates less of an investment in the politics of identifying one person or set of people as family or friends than in the qualities that underwrite family relationships and friendships. This move, I hope, is what keeps us from reinscribing categories of identity (which are immediately followed by hierarchical assignments of dignity and worth) and instead, choosing subjective mobility and categorical transgression. But, maybe that’s just the queer in me.

    That kind of queerness is what drives my deep gratitude for Alpert’s pushback of any limited notion of family. She describes a variety of “circles of intimacy” to suggest that there is quite a slippery line between one set of relations and an array of others. What I love about Alpert’s inquiry, then, is what it requires of us in terms of honest reflection, evaluation, and attention. Rather than consider what types of groups should be called family, I believe her questions suggest that we contemplate what types of behaviors, agreements, expectations, values, desires, and virtues ought to inform the diverse sets of relationships in our lives. Alpert’s own example of her bio-legal family, some of whom she likes and all of whom she appreciates having in her life, illustrates what it means to recognize the importance of good connections. And, she does this by using another term—relatives—to mark the fact that she is, in distinctive ways, related to these people (with those relations defined by biology, law, social scripts, and desire). Yet, the way that those bio-legal relations exist is not quite as “normal” as white cisheteropatriarchy would deem appropriate. Instead, while Alpert’s own “real family” is made possible because of bio-legal connections, it is constituted by her desire to “count” them. Such an accounting is the process for which I hope Black Queer Ethics makes room.

Monique Moultrie

Response

We Are Family: New Visions, Old Virtues, and Black Queer Ethics

When I started this book the chorus of Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” rang through my consciousness with each page I turned. The 1979 hit “We Are Family” was recently added to the National Recording Registry in January 2017 by the Library of Congress as a song that is “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” to American society.1 In my favorite verse, Sister Sledge sings,

Living life is fun and we’ve just begun

To get our share of this world’s delights

High, high hopes we have for the future

And our goals in sight

We, no we don’t get depressed

Here’s what we call our golden rule

Have faith in you and the things you do

We are Family

I got all my sisters with me

Get up everybody and sing

The lyrics present a number of family options and offer an optimistic view of family that I immediately saw mirrored in Thelathia Nikki Young’s brilliant deconstruction and reinvention of family in the pages of Black Queer Ethics, Family, & Philosophical Imagination. Young presents a sense of family that extends past the boundaries of DNA, marriage, or communal living that offers transformative possibilities for what it means to remember and recreate the construct of family. In her book’s thesis, she argues that “black queer people are moral agents who enact family in ways that are simultaneously disruptive to current familial norms in our society, creatively resistant to the disciplinary powers at work in these norms, and subversively generative and imaginative in relation to establishing new ways of being in relationship” (10). Thus, at its very core, the work is concerned with disturbing and envisioning understandings of family demonstrating a keen sense of the values, virtues, and norms involved with black queer relationality.

Young situates her argument as a black queer Christian ethicist, and as a womanist sexual ethicist I too share her interest in values, virtues, and norms.

By destabilizing the seemingly stable and yet constantly volatile notion of family, rather than recreating the dichotomy of families of origin and chosen families, Young actually provides a window into the murkiness of multiple conceptions of family while being attentive to what norms should not be recreated as black queer communities reconstitute their familial ties in innovative ways. Chapter 4 presents interviewee Denise’s discussion of family obligation that centers on materialism. Denise is relieved to be able to be “give out of love” to her “created family” as opposed to obligation or guilt (88–89). This is striking because it intimates that there is still the possibility of a reciprocal or even mandated duty to those we call family but the difference is that a person can choose to reciprocate or give. Because this is discussed in a chapter focused on norms, it pushed me to ponder the plausibility of creating family that is interdependent yet not mandatory. As I try to think beyond current heteronormative familial structures, I am still struck with how much of the human condition is in fact conditional. From the gestation period to the interment process, we depend on others, for some this is ideally those we call family. Yet, can this be discussed outside of the norm of the exploitative nature of capitalist economic family structures discussed in chapter 5? Is Denise’s ability to choose enough to make participation and replication of capitalism palatable?

These questions bring me back to the true murkiness of the family visions that Young provides. There are no model exemplars, simply endless reimaginings of different ways of being with each other in the world. Yet, each new possibility presented new doors into potentially different structures than even what Young describes. For instance, when discussing black queer rejection of heteronormative family structures Young includes an interview excerpt from Gabrielle who shared her interest in open and polygamist relationships. Young also describes the triad relationship of Park, Vicci, and Jackie who are co-parenting Young’s god-son Kenyan. Young lifts these examples of the queer imaginings of family but also includes them in discussions of loyalty and solidarity. The richness of the narratives pushed me to imaginative spaces of my own, spaces where persons are free to consciously uncouple from monogamy, parenting, or even codependency and still be “in the family” and not just absentee. For me, these spaces illustrate Alice Walker’s womanist definition of being a separatist for health reasons while still being committed to the survival and wholeness of the entire people.

There are examples of separatism for personal health given throughout the text, and they are highlighted as examples of the virtues of survival and resilience within black queer subjectivity. I truly appreciated that Black Queer Ethics provides narratives of unjust families without normalizing or essentializing these experiences as indicative of all black queer identity. As a womanist sexual ethicist, I constantly push to have the discourse move beyond merely remembering the pain done to the bodies of black women as I anxiously want to create space for discussions of sexual pleasure felt within black bodies. Similarly by remembering that there are some family structures that should be torn down, Young does not dwell on the negative but instead focuses on the positive depictions of family that are being created and that will ultimately transform the concept of family.

Even if one starts with the negation of hierarchical familial households Young promises the possibility of the good life or a new ethical standard for relationships so the reader is taken to the positive (121). This is a creative enterprise that posits a new type of family values that makes real realities of wholeness and hope. Young innovatively draws on Iris Murdoch, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Martha Nussbaum to present the black queer good life. Yet, I immediately found similarities to ethicist Peter Paris’s work Virtues and Values: The African and African American Experience. Paris claims that African American virtues are oriented towards preserving and promoting community, a concept he considered justice and the supreme virtue. At its core I conjecture that pursuing and creating the good life that indicates our accountability and responsibility to others, is perhaps the highest virtue for Young. Thriving families live outside of the land of imagination and become actual, and the various narratives Young gathers show this in our real world.

Moral imagination offers the gift of our actual stories while acknowledging that so much more is possible than what we have experienced. Young asks her readers “if we could imagine relationships that do, in fact, dismiss or dismantle the ‘system of power’ within relationships altogether” (180). While the narratives she provides show variations of how power, gender, capitalism, race, and sexuality are explored they all are still working within known power systems. Yet, the good life offers more than we know. With every individual daring to live and love in their best way, our imaginations expand and make room for even more expansive interpretations of relationality. This promises a space where, as Sister Sledge sings, “everyone can see we’re together” because “we are family.”


  1. https://www.loc.gov/item/prn-17-029/national-recording-registry-picks-are-over-the-rainbow/2017-03-29/.

  • Nikki Young

    Nikki Young

    Reply

    Response to Monique Moultrie

    I love that Monique Moultrie’s reflection on my work evokes music. Such an evocation points to the creatively poetic undercurrents that drive my arguments in the book. Sister Sledge’s lyrics, as Moultrie suggest, connote family connections that are based on choice, shared goals, mutual support, and connection. The lyrics illuminate a notion of what is possible within those connections, as Sister Sledge declares the group a “family” after having described what they do, believe, and share. For her, the familial connection is about collective erotic values, practices, and strategized hopes (aka goals). Those folks are family to one another because of how they behave with one another; their beliefs and behavior substantiate the relationships. And, for me, this is the proper order: it is the relations that manifest as a result of what underwrites the connections, not the other way around.

    Family is, at its core, a creative enterprise. It is a process of making: making meaning, making connections, making selves, making possibilities. What I love about Moultrie’s use of music, then, is that it unapologetically highlights this (sometimes amorphous) element of family that Black Queer Ethics tries to signal. Though my book begins with the family’s capacity and black queers’ practice of confronting norms, the process to which such work is aimed is creativity. Ultimately, the work of producing possibility is the labor in which black queer people have invested in their own lives as well as in connections with one another and other people.

    Moultrie does well to notice this kind of possibility production in a reflection offered by research participant Denise, who articulated the complexity involved in sharing, giving, and receiving resources within her family. Speaking particularly about the relationship with her mother, Denise said that she was doing her best to reframe this exchange process outside of a system of obligation. For her, the obligatory nature of the exchanges removed it from the realm of love and family. Setting conditions on the exchange of resources and attaching those to love actually “tainted” the love in the first place. Moultrie is right to notice that even within Denise’s move away from obligation, “there is still the possibility of a reciprocal or even mandated duty.” Moultrie recognizes that, for Denise, the rules of obligatory exchange do not create structures of accountability; rather, it is the freedom of choice that allows for each party to be freely accountable to/with one another. I agree with Denise that the presence of choice is what allows us all to move away from family relations and familial resource provision structures that mirror capitalist systems of exchange, which are built on a punishment-reward scheme. In contrast, choice-driven gifts, exchanges, and provisions are based on the value of relations and experiential connections that they foster. . . . Then again, the language of erotic value is unclear in a family context that is built on market value. So here we are.

    I very much appreciate Moultrie’s inclusion of Alice Walker’s definition of womanism in her essay. She reminds us of Walker’s emphasis on the spaces that are necessary so that new experiences of self-care and love and regeneration can occur. I describe black queer choices in the text in a way that includes a theme of social differentiation. I do not wish to point to connection for connection’s sake, since that is not always healthy or life-giving. Rather, I was and remain interested in noting the importance of paying attention to the technologies that produce those connections. I show how some folks do this by creating new spaces and simply taking reflective steps back from spaces that do not feel healthy or productive. One of the research participants, L. Alice, talked about this the best, remarking that loving people without condition does not require loving people to one’s own detriment. The sacrifice of self does not have to be the metric of real love; rather, the metric is real, healthy love that each party involved can experience. As Moultrie says, this is the “murky” part. Ethical reflections on black queer relations lean into notions of self-care and self-love and move away from self-sacrifice that is often underwriting our notions of the highest love. This is why Walker’s work is so liberating. It provides an example of love that takes seriously one’s capacity to survive and thrive as a value in itself. Thus, the reframing that Moultrie finds murky tries to deal with these elements that seem mutually exclusive.

    Another element of murkiness to which Moultrie points is the simultaneity of traditional values and practices situated alongside new ones that seem to conflict. The example of a tri-parenting system, filled with non-monogamous lifelong connections, is indeed an example of loyalty and solidarity in the text. Seeing black queer practices of love, relationality, and shared parental responsibility is not itself new, but it does reframe our ideas of what it means to be loyal and in solidarity with one another. The loyalty we see is not about maintaining the same kind of connection but instead about establishing connections that can weather new developments and stretch to accommodate our own and others’ self-articulations and choices.

    Moultrie returns to Sister Sledge’s lyrics to illustrate her interpretation of the moral imagination that black queers employ. The simultaneity of evidence for what we do and what we can make possible is the nexus of black queer creativity. It is an imaginative space that takes for granted the proof of the life that we live while also affirming that we can do differently. “Everyone can see” particularly highlights this notion: our black queer practices of relationality are visible and perceptible. People can choose to recognize it and its value as they wish, but they certainly have to admit its perceptibility. I believe Moultrie captures the central element of moral imagination, here, and rightly connects it to my use of narratives in tandem with theoretical projections. She is right to name that a high ethical value, in my estimation, is the cultivation of a set of relations that build on accountability. Yet, the nuance that I want to add is that such accountability requires freedom. It requires choice. It requires a set of possibilities that emerge from our own willingness to disentangle from inhibiting structures of relating.

Benae Beamon

Response

“I Do Invite You”: Ethics, Jazz, and Afrofuturity

“I mean ‘queer’ to me in itself embraces a radical politics . . . [;] it connects me to people. It opens a space up in me that allows me to see that space in other people” (89). These words from Bayard, one of the interviewed participants, featured in Thelathia Nikki Young’s Black Queer Ethics, Family, & Philosophical Imagination (2016) call to mind the power of black queer experiences and a concept of marginality espoused by Victor Turner. Turner spoke eloquently in The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (1969) about the ethical bounty held within the liminal space.1 The liminal space is “betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial.”2 Such space is “ambiguous and indeterminate” yet full of potentiality, likened to “death, to being in the womb, . . . [or] to the wilderness.”3 Liminality comprises egalitarianism, serenity despite chaos, and freedom from the hegemonic forces that seek to control what is and what can be; it is permeated by an eminence and belief in futurity, revealing its transitory yet cyclical nature.4 Since encountering this idea, I have found myself wistfully in search of an embrace of liminality; spaces that can make permanent the seemingly ephemeral and welcome the uncertainty of ambiguity, courageously creating comfort amidst disorientation and accessing hope in an otherwise. Young’s Black Queer Ethics gifts us with the otherwise that we have been hoping for, the beautiful and complex mess that is a non-normative life lived in resistance: the anti-structure.

Young and Sage, another participant, introduce a “jazz mode of creativity,” which I believe is an expression of this liminality (32). This jazz mode of creativity calls forth a resilience in its innovation and adaptability, and jazz after all is an extension of Afro-diasporic communication.5 Amiri Baraka notes that “the most apparent survivals of African music” are in the rhythms of African American music.6 Baraka offers a solid foundation for understanding jazz, saying that “the very structure of jazz is the melodic statement with . . . improvised answers or comments on the initial theme.”7 Baraka’s definition parallels the comments from Ashley, another participant, who affirms that “family is something . . . [you can create.] I love that it can change, that you can generate things differently than you ever thought of before, that anything is possible” (100). Ashley recalls that she “come[s] from queer ancestors” and the ways in which the always already non-normative nature of black queerness establishes a “creative, generative process” (100). Sage, however, draws us back to the brilliance that it takes to survive, recognizing that “being black and queer is a gift—a gift of vision” (32).

Sage finds that black queers have “access to possibilities, choices, and the knowledge of choices . . . [and] can search the depths of consciousness and the expansiveness of all creation to make some really good stuff” (32). This constant exploration arises because “there in is no model or norm” and, therefore, requires an embrace of spontaneity, both of which are at the core of jazz (32). John Coltrane noted that when soloing “I start from one point and go as far as possible [though I hope to] lose my way . . . [because] what would interest me greatly is to discover paths that I’m perhaps not aware of.”8 Coltrane reaches ceaselessly, relying on his own capacity and the endless possibilities, longing for the opportunity for innovation, or the space to build one’s ethical road as one goes. Miles Davis discussed forward movement and hopefulness in jazz, saying “it’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note—it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.’”9 Such hopefulness requires self-forgiveness and compassion to assuage regret or self-denigration and point towards the disruption to which Young lays claim; “disruption makes room for the irruption of new-counter normalizing norms” and helps us recognize the pervasive normalization of hegemonic structures (103). Young reminds us that the abject nature of black queer bodies and realities leaves room for exploration and possibility, allowing black queer flourishing. Disruption also encourages a “bearing up” of one another that Harriet T., another participant, describes.

To bear up, or to hold “the weight of individual and collective experience, insights and longings[,] . . . [yields a communicative honesty that] call[s] the family to reflect constructively with one another” (101). An unparalleled freedom emerges when sharing experiences; a freedom that subverts hegemonic expectations for black queer individuals like Bayard, who boldly asserts that Jesus sought to “escape a biological determinism when it came to ethics and how we should treat one another” (89). For Bayard, freedom comes in a restructuring of his canon that does not rule out constructions of family that love and care him into life. For Denise, another participant, freedom enables you to do “whatever the hell you wanna do and [know] everybody just gon’ accept you” (133). John Coltrane echoes this sentiment when talking about longtime pianist McCoy Tyner, saying, “Tyner keeps himself to the harmonies, which lets me forget them. [It] kind of gives me wings and lets me leave the earth from time to time.”10 This “bearing up” is created in black queer families, yet also remains malleable, shifting as the family and its needs stretch and making different kinds of freedom opportune. I believe such freedom is visible in Young’s methodology as well. Young does not simply offer an ethical guide that uncovers the ethical bounty of black queer existence, but does so ethically.

Young disrupts the fragmented societal understanding of black queerness and offers us an opportunity to receive the vast potentialities named and unnamed of black queer life. Towards the beginning of the text, Young discusses Emmanuel Lartey, who “names the space of listening ‘holy’ because it is the locus in which attention meets intimacy” (39); I find Young’s approach to this text and community holy, then. Jazz pianist Sun Ra, in the song “Enlightenment,” sings of “the magic light of tomorrow” and proclaims that “enlightenment is my tomorrow . . . hereby, my invitation / I do invite you be of my space world.”11 Young’s work is the presentation of a possible tomorrow towards which black queer experience gestures replete with light, joy, and promise, which are precluded from black queer existence as it is alien to the bounds of enjoyment privileged by hegemony; moreover, it is a simultaneous invitation for participation. Young asks us to join her as she interacts with interviewees, disrupting the process itself and drawing us into intimate exchange with black queer experience (129). She presents this exchange in part by creating space for “black queer voices [to] self-name through narrative in [her] book,” sharing the voices and stories of participants unencumbered, thereby reaffirming their agency (37). She places participants into conversation with one another, like Benito and Denise, reasserting the communal nature of conversation around family and black queer life (86–87). Perhaps more poignantly, Young revels in the magic and power of black queer life as she writes. There is profound joy as she contends that “black queers engage in imagination . . . ‘perform[ing]’ a type of world viewing that is essentially and discursively radical, critical, and transformational” (158). Sun Ra is known to have said “the possible has been tried and failed. Now it’s time to try the impossible.”12 Young honors that which has been tried and builds upon it, while uncovering the impossible; more accurately, the black queer possibilities and moral imagination relegated to impossibility. Like Sun Ra, Young reveals to us an ethic of afrofuturity; one that simultaneously transcends time and space through a reconstitution of the liminal. This now and not-yet that Young describes “allows for moral agents to occupy spaces that are projections [of] future possibilities” and is the key to black queer survival (161). As in any understanding of the liminal, black queer space is enigmatic and somewhat indeterminate, melding present with future while holding fast to its ancestral roots. This space establishes an egalitarianism while using spontaneity to embody the divine creation of generative love as a response to the ambiguity (or the incomprehensibility of black queer life in a white cisheteropatriarchal hegemony), reaffirming the possibility for black queer flourishing. I am hopeful for the now and not-yet and grateful that Young blessed us with a written record and guidance to what we can imagine is only the precipice of the “impossible.”


  1. I am aware that Roger Sneed spoke about this notion of liminality in Ain’t I a Womanist, Too? Third Wave Womanist Religious Thought, stating that “the search for a new way to describe ourselves beyond hegemonic terms imposed upon us by others, is reflective of the liminal spaces that black queer bodies occupy” (140). However, Sneed also notes that Turner “considers those who are liminal (or liminars) should ‘be distinguished from “marginal”’” (140). Sneed further elaborates that “Turner is concerned with ritual liminalisty, black homosexuals cannot, by his definition and description, be taken up into this concept” (141). I am going to disregard Turner’s intention as well as Sneed’s conclusion for two primary reasons: (1) African (and I would argue African American) life is deeply replete with the potential sacrality of all aspects of life. Jacob Olupona in African Religions: A Very Short Introduction mentions an integrated worldview that I believe African Americans share; he also notes this worldview leads “practitioners of African religions to speak about the visible in tandem with the invisible. Each living and inanimate object is potentially sacred on some level” (4). Furthermore, we are exploring black queer liminality in the ethical realm and in the moral imagination, which I find is particularly integral to this integrated worldview as it assumes/imagines the sacred possibilities of everyday actions. (2) I also find that if Young’s work teaches us anything, it is the refusal of black queer life to define itself through the limited and unimaginative spectrum of white supremacist, cisheteropatriarchal imagination, which is Turner’s ritual frame; furthermore, Young shows us that such a frame has not and never could hold black queer realities.

  2. Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Chicago: Aldine, 1969), 95.

  3. Ibid. This notion of liminality is one originated by Arnold van Gennep, though Turner expands upon it.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Amiri Baraka, The Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, ed. William J. Harris (New York City: Thunder’s Mouth, 1960), 28.

  6. Ibid., 27, 28.

  7. Ibid., 28.

  8. Ben Ratliff, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound (New York: Picador, 2007), 65.

  9. Marina Santi and Eleonora Zorzi, eds., Education as Jazz: Interdisciplinary Sketches on a New Metaphor (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2016), 90.

  10. Ratliff, Coltrane, 65.

  11. Sun Ra, Enlightenment, Jazz in Silhouette (Chicago: Saturn, Impulse!, 1959).

  12. John Szwed, Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (New York: Pantheon, 1997), 192.

Josef Sorett

Response

Josef Sorett on Black Queer Ethics

BLACK. QUEER. ETHICS. With just the first three words of the title to her wonderful first book, Black Queer Ethics, Family and Philosophical Imagination, Thelathia Nikki Young has made quite a significant intervention. In thinking across, and bringing together, these categories—the black, the queer, the ethical—with both academic rigor and personal vulnerability, Black Queer Ethics is noteworthy.

Throughout the book, Young boldly locates herself in the story (i.e., in the first person), moving between textual analysis and ethnographic-like interviews. In this vein, she positions her analysis within traditions of feminist anthropology and, as I read it, black Christian practices of testimony. In the play between Christian and queer, ethics and ethnography, scripture and storytelling, all in the context of black life, Black Queer Ethics charts a bold path for future scholarship. Given the author’s methodological commitment to “Praxis”—of ethics as a “theoretical and practical endeavor”—my response tries to follow Young’s lead by attending to the pull between theory and practice and to highlight and suggest synergies between the book and broader developments in the worlds of academia and activism.

At the level of activism, the recent prominence of #BlackLivesMatter has provided the phrase “Black Queer” with a degree of accessibility, as many of the movement’s most visible figures self-identify as queer and/or espouse a black queer (and feminist) politics. Within academic circles, E. Patrick Johnson and Mae Henderson’s 2004 volume, Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology, garnered a broad interdisciplinary hearing for Black Queer Studies. Contributors to this volume helped set an agenda for more specific studies of the varying experiences and phenomena that fall under rubrics of black queer subjectivity and social life that have since been published. As but one recent example, No Tea, No Shade: New Writings in Black Queer Studies (2016), edited by E. Patrick Johnson—which bills itself as a “follow up” to his and Henderson’s earlier anthology—served notice of a field finding form and fullness even as it modeled a form of black queer collaboration and community.

In the context of this burgeoning field of Black Queer Studies noted above, the simple addition of “ethics” is what seems to make Young’s work especially novel. To Google “black queer ethics” (or to look up the phrase with academic search engines) is to find references almost exclusively to Young’s work. To be clear, as Young herself notes, there is a community of scholars working at the intersections of black queer theory (and LGBT studies) and theology and ethics. Nor is there is any absence of consideration for various topics that fall under the umbrella of ethics, in a general sense, within the various fields that comprise black queer studies. If not immediately obvious, the third word in Young’s title—namely, ethics—does offer a clue to the book’s singularity.

With Black Queer Ethics, Young is one of the first scholars (if not the first) to offer a book-length inquiry into black queer life from within the specific field of Christian ethics. In writing this book, Young’s aim is not simply to place Christian ethics in conversation with Black Queer Studies. Rather, she appeals to black queer life as a means of holding the discipline in which she was trained accountable to its professed ethical (and Christian) commitments. To do so, Young gives due attention to the history and discursive structures of Christian ethics, which she renders with nuance as a hegemonic discourse that simultaneously aspires to liberationist ideals. Here she is less concerned with imposing a systematic Christian ethic onto black queer life. Nor is her goal to render black queer life in Christian terms, or even with making a Christian claim for black queer identity.

Rightfully, to my mind, rather than an act of apologetics, Young offers a portrait of “Black Queers” (to use her phrase) engaging the Bible (and other sources), attending churches (or not), and attempting to practice their faith (and negotiate doubts) on a day-to-day basis. Whereas popular storylines and academic orthodoxies often accept the proposition of the Christian and the Queer as a relationship of fundamental oppositions, Young presents the stories of Black Queers (herself included) who find themselves in varied relationship to Christianity. Black, Queer and Christian are entangled in ways that don’t neatly line up with creeds and doctrinal statements.

I find this approach—indicative, I think, of an ethic that privileges black queer living and doing over Christian orthodoxy—compelling in that it is consistent with what I’ve come to think of as the rather “heterodox history of Afro-Protestantism.” Which is to say, we can think of black faith as a queer tradition comprised of a range of ideas and practices that don’t always register on the official records of religious institutions or academic studies. Yet I also found myself wondering (and so I ask): what does Young think about what might be observed as the absence of Christianity in black queer studies? Or, perhaps, where and how does Young see the presence of religion, more broadly, in the study of black queer life? How does Christianity (as a set of ideas and institutions) figure—or not—in the field of Black Queer Studies?

I want to move to my second observation, shifting from academia to activism, from a Black Queer interrogation of Christian ethics, in general, to the specifics of Young’s constructive concern with regards to practices of family. Here, #BlackLivesMatter comes immediately to mind. On a webpage that details the movement’s “Guiding Principles,” the following is detailed under the heading “Black Villages”:

We are committed to disrupting the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and “villages” that collectively care for one another, and especially “our” children to the degree that mothers, parents and children are comfortable.1

As a social movement set on securing black lives (including those of black women, queer, trans and disabled folks), #BlackLivesMatter is geared toward protesting and disrupting what are understood as traditional “Western-prescribed” ideas and social arrangements (i.e., the “nuclear family structure”). The aim here is twofold: (1) to affirm all black lives unconditionally, and (2) to help create the conditions under which such lives are granted social recognition and protections. As a scholar who shares similar commitments, Young calls our attention to the quotidian ways in which Black Queers sustain one another through forming and sustaining family—all of this, more often than not, in the absence of affirmation, recognition or protection from elsewhere.

Ultimately, to borrow the movement’s metaphor, Young wants to bring readers into a black queer village—as site, source and model of (Christian) ethical reflection. In doing so, she both constructs a Christian ethic in the context of black queer life and posits a queer ethic in the practices of black Christianity. Yet I also read her ethnographic engagement with “the village” as moving beyond analysis and gesturing toward a theology of becoming—a constructive claim—that foregrounds the fluid processes through which both “family” (biological and chosen) and faith are forged in the face (or shadows) of orthodoxies of all sorts and against great odds. Black Queer Ethics, in this way, both calls attention to something that is already apparent even as it invites us all to imagine the human family anew.


  1. See http://blacklivesmatter.com/guiding-principles.

  • Nikki Young

    Nikki Young

    Reply

    Response to Josef Soret

    The work of Black Queer Ethics is an interjection—a raised (and waving) hand—in the midst of various discussions about black life, survival, structures of oppression, and institutions that sanction inequality and violence. My work in the text reflects my own ethical consciousness, to be sure, but it also voices the moral frameworks of many black queer people who are thinking about and acting on desires for liberated lives. For this reason, the aim of the book is multifaceted, giving attention to and making room for black queers to speak into ethical existence the social and relational frameworks the we find life-giving and life-sustaining. As Sorett notes, such an aim requires testimony and analysis, prophecy and deconstruction, vulnerability and unapologetic whistle-blowing. That is the labor I invested in writing the book, and it produced both a methodology and theoretical engagement that reflects the ethics that the book lays forth.

    To write blackness, queerness, and ethics into a sociopolitical context that is as racist, heteronormative, and homo-repulsed as ours is to serve notice (especially within the field of religious ethics) that black queer folk really do matter. We are not simply the “least of these” whose lives ought to be the subjects of many lamentations; rather, we are, in fact, the ones we’ve been waiting for. In short, we substantiate our ancestors’ hopes and represent the evidence of lives unseen (or unimagined). For this reason, then, interjecting black queer lives and stories and moral frameworks into religious, academic, and activist discourse is the work of ethics. It is the act of acknowledging and learning from wisdom borne of various experiences, including purposefully self-liberating ones. Here again, Sorett is right: making visible the people who are themselves embedded in systems of oppression and active in its destruction creates visibility—a visibility that eschews ignorance and debunks myths of victimhood and compliance with injustice.

    And noncompliance has a special place in black people’s lives, especially in relation to our beliefs in and practices of religious traditions passed to and fro. Sorett calls black faith (and, arguably, religiosity) a queer tradition, and he is spot on. Considering Christianity, for example, I remain curious about how black people and black queers make meaning of the structures and strictures of the Christ narrative in our own stories. How does one relate to a Jesus story that is imbued with and used for sterile and compassionless engagement with nuanced matrices of oppression? What does it mean to practice religious rituals initiated by slave masters and reframed by liberation-seeking ancestors? How do we even talk about Christianity without noting its queerness in relation to the body and gender and performance in the first place? When Sorett asks, then, what place Christianity might have amid black queer studies, I ask in return: what place has Christianity outside of black and queer discourse? If Christianity is not engaging black people and our queerness, then it is missing its own purpose of dealing with and making space for human articulations and imaginings that reach far beyond sanctioned social constructions.

    For my research participants, the position of religion (and most often Christianity) in our lives is more than unstable; it is transitory. The movements of black queer people include dances with religion and Christianity, and honest analysis of those movements requires an interrogation of the relationship between blackness and queerness and religion and our collective discourse surrounding all of them. When a stranger asks me whether or not I have accepted Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior (which happens more often than one would think), I usually say, “it’s complicated.” My response invokes a relationship filled with questions, weighty social scripts that are at the same time loud and silent, commitments to my bio-family, respect for tradition, knowledge of and hope for queer connections, and an interest in the ethics of polyamorous possibilities. Such an answer puts the moans, waving hands, rocking backs, and nodding heads of my black, Southern, Pentecostal bio-kin in conversation with the swaying hips, finger snaps, wrist-pops, and duck walks of my community. Moreover, that response does not allow the inquirer to position me inside or outside of the religion(s) of my folk; rather, it grants me movement within my own experience in a way that echoes the stories of my research participants.

    For me, this is what it means to create and live in “the village,” as Sorett suggests. He is right to name the parallel between the Movement for Black Lives and Black Queer Ethics because the two charge various communities and institutions with creating the circumstances that reflect a justice- and love-driven ethos. To claim Christianity is an ethical enterprise, or to suggest that black lives do matter is to suggest a new way of being. It means transforming relational strategies, expectations, and values. It means recognizing the connective tissue that holds us together and appreciating the way such tissue is formed from queer and black and religious matter.

    To be sure, it does take a village. I don’t mean this only in terms of the many and varied individuals that will contribute to the care, education, love, nurturing, and protection of children. Rather, I mean that it takes a social structure that is invested in collective and individual flourishing so much that it makes and remakes itself to create room for whoever is present. I also mean that it takes a community that is willing to share the responsibility of being free together by learning to equally value the strong and the vulnerable, the prolific and the pensive, the creative and the responsive, the divine and the mundane. This is the type of village in which black lives unquestionably matter. This is the kind of space that redefines what it means to have and be family.

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